Making Better Interaction
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How many of you are on a mailing list where someone asks a
question like, “Where should the cancel button be placed?”
and this is the answer that invariably pops up. I hate this
answer, because the next question should always be, well,
what does it depend on? That’s what this talk is all about.
As designers, we spend an inordinate amount of time
making decisions, both small and large. Everything from
what should we label this dial to should we be making this
product at all? We need to make decisions.
Good Guesses 3
But when it comes to making those decisions, we’re
like the mathematician here in Sydney Harris’
cartoon. A miracle occurs. Even if we follow a rigid
design process, there will be moments when we
have to do something that some people are
uncomfortable with and yet is essential to the work
we do. We have to make a guess. Then a miracle
occurs, in other words. Step two.
I have hunches.
Of course, it's not enough merely to
have hunches. They have to be good
hunches. My hunches have to be
better than the hunches my clients
have—that's why they hire me.
Jesse James Garrett, ia/recon
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Here’s my colleague Jesse James Garrett in his
inﬂuential essay called ia/recon, written about 5
years ago. In it, he admits his secret, and here it
is. He has hunches. And I’m going to admit to you
here today the same thing. My name is Dan Saffer
and I’m a designer. I have hunches. And I bet you
have good hunches.
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I’m going to make this claim here today, which I think, in the era of
the iPod and the iPhone, is pretty easy to defend. The best designers
aren’t the ones who are the smartest or are the best trained or do the
most research or have the most experience. The best designers are
those that make the best guesses. This should be a comfort to some
of you (those like me who aren’t an Ivy League genius who has been
designing for 30 years) and a shock to others, I’m sure. Now, I’m not
saying that training or intelligence or research or experience aren’t
important. They are. What I am saying is that a good hunch--a really
good hunch--might sometimes come up with a better design.
How do we
improve our guesses?
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So this is the big question. If the way to
becoming a great designer is to make great
guesses, how do we do that? How do we
improve our guesses?
...in a method-
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I don’t want to simply offer up another method
to you either. Personas! Do more research!
More card sorting! Draw comics! Yes, these are
all great techniques, but I want to get at the
heart of what we do AFTER and WHILE we’re
doing other techniques: making guesses.
Understand how we
Consider many factors
in making decisions.
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Here’s my suggestions and the outline of this talk. By
understanding a little about the structures and
mechanisms of decisions, we might not do them differently
than we do them now--although perhaps not. Part II of
this idea is how we set about making those decisions. What
should we as interaction designers consider when we make
decisions? Perhaps a pause--an extra second or two--for
every decision we make will have us make wildly better
decisions. But ﬁrst, how do we make decisions.
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I’m going to preface this section of the talk by saying that I’m
not an expert in cognitive psychology. Most of what I’m
presenting here I’ve shamelessly cribbed from other sources,
particularly a textbook called Cognition by Daniel Reisberg.
Most of the examples and sources come from that book and
from various locations around the web. There is, as you’d
imagine, a whole body of literature from a large number of
ﬁelds about how we make decisions all of which are clustered
around what’s called Decision Theory.
RAPID VS. CONSIDERED DECISIONS
Good Guesses 10
You can’t talk about decision-making these days
without talking about Malcolm Gladwell’s book
Blink. In it, he makes the case that rapid, snap-
judgement decisions can be as effective--if not
more-so--than reﬂective, considered decisions. He
uses the example of the Aeron chair which users
initially hated but went on to be a huge best-seller
and design icon.
When you start becoming reflective
about the process, it undermines
your ability. You lose the flow. There
are certain kinds of fluid, intuitive,
nonverbal kinds of experience that
are vulnerable to this process.
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While I agree that slowing down the process breaks
the ﬂow, I also want to note that I think, especially
for knotty problems, slowing down and deliberately
considering them can also yield dividends, especially
for knotty problems in which a solution is NOT
immediately apparent. Which is of course, most of
the problems we have to deal with.
Good Guesses 12
The types of problems we as designers face are what have
been named Wicked Problems by design theorist H.J. Rittel.
Here’s the characteristics of Wicked Problems and see if
they don’t describe most of the projects you work on:
1. The problem is not understood until after formulation of
a solution. 2. Stakeholders have radically different world
views and different frames for understanding the problem.
3. Constraints and resources to solve the problem change
over time. 4. The problem is never solved.
MACRO- AND MICRO-DECISIONS
Good Guesses 13
These Wicked Problems can take many forms, big and
small. During the course of a project, we’re asked to solve
both macro and micro problems. Macro problems are those
of design strategy: Should this product be made? What
features should it include? Micro problems are those of
tactics: should this button be red or blue? Can the user
upload more than one ﬁle at a time? We can even have
these wicked problems IN our process: should I do user
The Structure of Decisions
Discover Frame Assess Consider
a Problem the Problem the Problem Solutions
Good Guesses 14
This process can take years or milliseconds.
1. A problem is discovered or simply presents itself.
2. Framing the problem. We need to put some sort of boundaries
around the problem before we can solve it. We’ll talk more about
this in a minute.
3. Assess the problem. Is it a huge problem or a small one? What
kind of resources do I need to make a decision here?
4. The heart of the matter, at least for designers. Considering the
solution. We’re going to talk a lot more about this in a moment.
5. Act. Execute the decision, for good or ill.
The Structure of Decisions
Discover Frame Assess Consider
a Problem the Problem the Problem Solutions
Good Guesses 15
It’s kind of weird how the decision making process
is like a hologram of the design process. It’s the
same at the micro level as it is at the macro level.
What I’m mostly concerned about is how we
consider solutions, but it’s awfully hard, as we’ll
see, to break this process apart.
Good Guesses 16
How we make decisions depends strongly
on how those decisions are presented and
constructed. Framed in other words. The
choices we make can be completely
inconsistent simply depending upon the
context we encounter them in.
I’m giving you $300. You have to
1. a sure gain of another $100
2. a 50% chance to get another
$200 and 50% to get nothing
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Here’s an example. Pick 1 or 2.
I’m giving you $500. You have to
1. a sure loss of $100
2. a 50% chance to lose nothing
or a 50% chance to lose $200
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Now again, do the same thing.
The decision is identical.
2. $300 or $500
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As you might have guessed, the outcome in both is
identical. They both leave you with the same amount
of money. But when the question was framed as a
“gain” more people (72%) chose option 1. When it
was framed as a loss, more people (64%) chose
option 2. Obviously, HOW you frame the problem can
change how you think about the answer to that
METAPHOR TO “NAME AND FRAME”
Good Guesses 20
Even the words we use to talk about a problem can
change the solution. This is the late Donald Schon who
wrote a number of books about problem framing such as
The Reﬂective Practitioner: How professionals think in
action. His famous example was about a troubled urban
housing project. When it was referred to as a “blight on
the community” or a “disease” the solution to it seemed
obvious: blights should be removed and diseases should
t is u
What is wanted What is unused
h at wn
W k no
Good Guesses 21
Luckily, as designers, we have some pretty good tools
at our disposal for framing decisions: namely
visualization. We can take abstract ideas and give them
form. This, for example, is a model of an intranet. It
framed the problems with the intranet nicely and it was
easy (or at least easier) to see what needed to be done
to ﬁx the intranet: we had to move the lines!
WHAT WE USE TO DECIDE: REASON
Good Guesses 22
So what goes into considering solutions? Three
We like to think we’re reasonable, logical people
and that’s how we make decisions. That
WHAT WE USE TO DECIDE: EMOTION
Good Guesses 23
Emotion. How we feel about a decision, what
we value, and how much we value it are
inescapable to making decisions.
WHAT WE USE TO DECIDE: COGNITION
Good Guesses 24
Cognition: how people pay attention,
remember, and think.
Let’s see how all these combine into two
major theories of decision-making.
PRESCRIPTIVE (“UTILITY”) THEORY
Good Guesses 25
Utility or Prescriptive Theory says that each decision has costs
to it. Costs meaning consequences (this will take a long time,
say, or will injure 1% of the users). Each decision also has a
beneﬁt to it. These beneﬁts can move us towards our goals
(like ﬁnishing a design) or provide us with things we value
(like, say, money). When we decide, we weigh the costs vs.
the beneﬁts. When we have several options available to us, we
take the one that has the most beneﬁcial mix of beneﬁts to
cost. Almost every decision, no matter how minor, will have
some sort of tradeoff. Seems...logical, right?
Good Guesses 26
Except that most of the time, we have to compare things that are
nearly impossible to weigh objectively. Is there more beneﬁt to
using the colors red and green or is the cost of color blind people
not being able to see it too high? Umm...
It comes down to subjectivity, ultimately. How much each factor
means to the individual. It might mean more to me to have the
color red than for some people not to see it because I value the
clarity of red more than a small percentage of the population. This
sounds callous, but we make these sorts of trade-offs all the time.
Expected Utility =
(Probability of Particular Outcome) x
(Utility of Outcome)
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But of course, most decisions aren’t so easy to determine--it’s
very hard to predict the future. Game theorists John von Neumann
and Oskar Morgenstern came up with this formula in the late
1940s to account for risks. Utility here means “something that is
important to you.”
With this model, you predict the expected risks based on the
likelihood of it ever happening times how great the utility is. So
even though the probability is extremely low, the utility of winning
the lottery is so high people will still buy lottery tickets.
Good Guesses 28
The most famous example of this sort of decision
making is Pascal’s Wager. According to Pascal, the
question is whether or not God exists. We don’t
know. However, the reward for belief in God if God
actually does exist is inﬁnite. Therefore, however
small the probability of God's existence, the expected
value of belief exceeds that of non-belief, so it is
better to believe in God, according to Pascal.
Good Guesses 29
The major ﬂaw with Utility Theory is that our values are
unstable and difficult to measure. One day we can believe
one thing, the next day another. Our emotions can lead us
one way or another, and, as we saw earlier, how a problem
is framed can cause us to change our position.
If I asked you what is more important, crime prevention or
$500, you’d probably say crime prevention. But if I said, give
me $500 for crime prevention, you might respond differently.
Good Guesses 30
If I said, for example, you can trade in your wedding
ring for a new one, you logically should say yes. A
newer gold ring seems to have more utility than an
old one. But you’re likely to say no. Something more
than reason is going on.
Good Guesses 31
This brings us to the second major theory of
decision-making: Descriptive Theory. If utility or
Prescriptive theory is about how we SHOULD make
decisions, Descriptive Theory is about how we DO
Good Guesses 32
One of the strongest forces in choosing is a desire to
avoid future regret. We don’t want to regret the
decisions we make, so we have a coping mechanism
Good Guesses 33
Justiﬁcation. We justify our decisions so we won’t
have regrets afterwards. With this theory, even if the
decision brings us utility, but makes us feel bad, it
was the wrong decision.
Good Guesses 34
There’s one more concept I want to talk about in regards to decision-
making, dealing with cognition, and that’s a term coined by the late
Nobel Prize winner Herb Simon: satisﬁce. Human beings lack the
cognitive resources to know all the relevant probabilities of outcomes,
and we can rarely evaluate all outcomes with sufficient precision. Our
memories are weak and unreliable. Thus we have to satisﬁce, or make
quot;good enoughquot; choices given the short amount of time and huge
amounts of data we have. Satisﬁce is a mechanism for managing the
world, because, Simon argues, there is too much information and thus it
is impossible to model the entire environment of any given problem.
All decision is a matter
of compromise. The alternative
that is finally selected never permits
a complete or perfect achievement of
objectives, but is merely the best
solution that is available under
Administrative Behavior the elements of user experience — 29 february 2005 35
Here’s Herb in his own words.
And this is what we as designers (and as humans),
ultimately do, right? We satisﬁce, making the best
decisions we can given what we can know at any
This again should be comforting to many.
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Now that we at least understand a little bit more
about the structure of how we make decisions and
the factors involved in decision-making, we can
approach speciﬁc decision points and look at them
from an interaction design perspective. I’m
approaching this as a series of Socratic questions
that we can ask ourselves when we get stuck on a
Good Guesses 37
Doing this will be natural to some of you, who might
automatically--Blink-style--go through all these things in your
head in an instant. For the rest of us, it’s going to feel a little
awkward at ﬁrst. The idea is to move us all collectively towards
an unconscious competence with IxD decision-making. So that
we begin to have a base for making good decisions that doesn’t
rely on any particular method to achieve good designs. And like
I said earlier, for knotty problems, it might be good to simply
take the time to step through these questions in a more
methodical way than you normally would.
Is the solution I’m considering...
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So here’s the questions I think we need to
consider when making a guess. When a
solution presents itself, you can rip through
these questions, either formally or
informally and brieﬂy. I content that doing
so will help our hunches.
FIT A CONVENTION IN OUR FIELD?
Good Guesses 39
The ﬁrst thing I ask myself when I get stuck is: Is there a good solution
we’ve seen elsewhere in our ﬁeld? Have other people solved this
successfully and can we draw upon their solution? After all, there is no
need to reinvent the wheel every time, for every little thing. This was one
of the issues with Flash when it was ﬁrst introduced--all conventions
went out the window. I usually follow Alan Cooper’s rule here: if there is
a standard or a convention, I better have a better solution that will
provide some signiﬁcant increases in usefulness or usability before I
This solution, however, should still be able to pass the test of the other
questions, however, or else it might be a lousy standard.
FIT A CONVENTION OUTSIDE OUR FIELD?
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If there isn’t a convention in the digital
realm, perhaps there is in physical or
mechanical realm that we can adapt for our
use. One of the reasons I started a
Just what is interacting, anyway?
FIT WHAT’S KNOWN ABOUT THE USERS?
Good Guesses 41
Do they have any behaviors, expectations, or
motivations that would make this a bad choice?
If I’m not giving them what they expect, am I
working with the MAYA principle? This is where
user research can play an important role is in
ﬁnding this out. (But even with user research we
might still be guessing here.)
FIT THE BUSINESS AND PRODUCT STRATEGY?
Good Guesses 42
Does my guess ﬁt the business strategy and
goals? We shouldn’t forget (nor be overwhelmed
by) the big picture for the company providing
the product or service. We need to ensure the
goals of our clients, be they internal or external,
are also met. A brilliant feature that detracts
from the overall strategy may not be so brilliant.
Good Guesses 43
Products and services have to be culturally
appropriate. The Yahoo Hong Kong page
looks like this not only because the
characters are different, but because the
colors, clusters, and page density are
appropriate for China.
Good Guesses 44
When and were will this be used and under
what circumstances? Is it one-time use and
thus has to be simple, or will it be
something used frequently, daily? Is it
mobile or stationary? Small screen or large?
Is there a screen at all?
FIT THE ACTIVITY?
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Activities are actions and decisions done for
a purpose. Does the solution provide the
necessary tools and information to complete
FOLLOW KNOWN LAWS?
Good Guesses 46
Does the solution follow known interaction design
laws like Fitts’ Law? Just because you have a
gorgeous “designery” solution doesn’t mean you
should ignore what is known and tested.
Hick’s Law: Users will more quickly make decisions
from a list of 10 items than from two items of ﬁve.
FOLLOW THE POKA-YOKE PRINCIPLE?
Good Guesses 47
Poka Yoke means preventing error. Does the
solution I’ve come up with prevent
inadvertent errors by the system or user?
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Tesler’s Law of the Conservation of
Complexity states that for every process
there is a core of complexity that can’t be
overcome, only moved between the system
and the user. Are we making users do
something the system could handle?
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The ﬂip side is too make sure you didn’t
just remove all control from the hands of
users, especially your power users.
Simplicity is great, but sometimes users
need the control that complexity gives
ENCOURAGE EXPLORATION AND PLAY?
Good Guesses 50
Being playful allows you to explore options.
Users need to feel safe in order to try out
features. Can what I’m proposing be
undone? And if so, how and how easily?
ELEGANT AND APPROPRIATE?
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Is the solution overly disruptive? Does it manifest
itself at the correct time and in an appropriate
way? (Clippy isn’t elegant or appropriate.) This
comes down to importance: how important (and
thus how prominent) should this be? How much
of the users’ valuable time should it take up?
FIT THE COMPANY’S BRAND?
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Does the solution work with the company’s
brand? As much as usability gurus tell us
otherwise, pure utility simply won’t work for every
company. Imagine if Tiffany’s website looked like
Ebay or Amazon.
NOT DOING AS MUCH AS IT SHOULD?
Good Guesses 53
Smart products and services do for us what we
could in no way do for ourselves. Things like
advanced calculation, data crunching, gathering
of information that would take us forever to
ﬁnd, if we even could. Like Amazon’s What do
Customers ultimately buy? Can the solution do
more using what the user is already doing?
SENSE AND RESPOND TO INPUT?
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Does the solution make an attempt to
personalize the application for each user, slowly
Isn’t there just one right way to do
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The last thing (or maybe it should be the
ﬁrst thing) we should ask: Is the solution
just? Does it preserve the dignity of the
users? Is the interaction pleasurable for
both the initiator of the action and the
HOW DO WE KNOW IF WE’VE
MADE A GOOD GUESS?
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The $64,000 question. After I’ve done all
this, how do I know if I guessed correctly?
Well, I have some bad news.
Good Guesses 57
Time is the only ﬁnal arbiter of good design.
Does your design last? Even if it is improved
upon? The design of a fork took hundreds of
years to perfect. All designed objects, Henry
Petroski asserts, leave room for improvement.
Nothing is perfect. Even things that have been
quot;perfectedquot; over a millennia such as tables and
chairs can be improved upon.
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One implication of thinking about guessing
and guesswork as the core of design returns
the focus of design back onto the designer,
away from tasks and from users. Some
people are uncomfortable with that.
RESEARCH IS A TOOL NOT A METHODOLOGY
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Research, especially, is de-emphasized with this
design stance. Research is more about ﬁlling in
the gaps in the designer’s knowledge than an
activity to be done for its own sake. But perhaps
that is how it should be viewed.
How a problem is
framed affects the
The Utility Theory says
that each decision has
associated costs and
benefits to be weighed.
Good Guesses 60
So to summarize
The Descriptive Theory
says that we justify
decisions we make in
order to avoid regret.
We have to make
decisions all the time.
Every decision is
Good Guesses 61
solutions to see if the
qualities are what they
should be: examples of
Good Guesses 62
ia/recon, Jesse James Garrett
Blink, Malcolm Gladwell
Cognition, Third Edition, Daniel Reisberg
The Evolution of Useful Things, Henry Petroski
The Reflective Practitioner, Donald Schöen
Administrative Behavior, Herbert Simon
Thanks to Flickr and its contributing photographers
for the images.
the elements of user experience — 29 february 2005 63
Here’s some works I cited in this talk.